Do you know your neighbors? Many studies document the value of knowing your neighbors to overall health and well-being. Neighboring can save your life.
A University of Minnesota study found that older adults who have had a stroke have a better survival rate if they have a “cohesive neighborhood” as defined by neighbor interactions. The incidence of strokes did not differ but survival rate did.
Researchers from Brigham Young University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at data from 148 studies and found a correlation between social relationships and death rates. Looking at research on more than 300,000 men and women from developed countries, they found that those without social connections had a 50% higher odds of death during the follow up period of the study. (The researchers reported that this is about the same mortality difference as between smokers and non-smokers.)
Watch this two-minute video on the impact of knowing your neighbors as found by the Arizona Health Survey:
Who’s on your block?
Unfortunately, the benefits of neighboring aren’t always making it to or appreciated on the street. In 2010, the Pew Research Center released a report on how neighbors communicate. 28% knew none of their neighbors by name. 46% of Americans talked face-to-face with neighbors about community issues in the prior 12 months, so more than half did not. A full year is a long time to go without talking face-to-face with a neighbor about life in your shared community.
While there are a growing number of people keeping track of neighborhood activities via digital tools like blogs, email, Facebook, and other social media, can that really take the place of a chat over the back fence or a holiday gathering of neighbors?
Unfortunately, opportunities to neighbor have been designed out of our communities. We pull up to our garages, open the door remotely and enter the house without any human interactions. And what happened to front porches in close proximity to sidewalks? Television and computers, of course, have also sucked up time and relationships. What’s a person who wants to know her or his neighbors to do?
When “Neighbor” is a verb
We’re lucky. “Neighbor” is a verb on our block. Throughout the year, we find lots of reasons to gather – holidays, bottling of a new batch of beer, root beer float weather – friendships and community are built year round.
Here are a few ideas for building community and relationships with your neighbors. Feel free to add your own to the comment section.
Chinese or Lunar New Year – Celebrate Chinese New Year by inviting your neighbors out for dinner at your favorite Chinese restaurant to celebrate the New Year. Call ahead and reserve a large table. No one has to clean house or do the dishes afterwards. Wear red for good luck. Gung hay fat choy!
St. Patrick’s Day – Our neighbor, Susan, invites the neighbors in for Irish Coffee, soda bread and shamrock cookies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. By March, we’ve all spent way too much time indoors. It’s a nice opportunity to see everyone, share catch up on family news and view how much the children have grown.
Summer potluck – Open your yard or get permission to close your street for a neighborhood potluck. Collect ample picnic tables and ask everyone to bring their own chairs. We did a potluck for 20 neighbors and other friends last year with an Italian theme and assigned courses but it doesn’t have to be that formal.
Root beer floats – Each summer, we invite our neighbors over for root beer floats on the patio. It is a really simple, affordable and fun way to entertain. We still haven’t reached consensus on whether you put the ice cream or root beer into the glass first. Either way, they taste great!
Halloween –After the little (and not so little) goblins have stopped ringing doorbells, our neighbor, Janis, has the neighbors in for hot cider and gingerbread. It’s a lovely way to catch up on news of the block and wind down after a wild evening of costumes and candy.
Holiday Cookie bake – This takes some preparation but is a fun way to kick off the holidays. Invite neighbors to make a large batch of their favorite cookies. Each participant will then choose a collection of cookies. Our neighbor, Caitlyn, had cute boxes and ribbons prepared for us. See 5.5 Reasons to do a Cookie Bake.
Scrabble – Invite your neighbors over for a Scrabble “tournament.” Ask them to bring their Scrabble games and divide the group into tables. Another option is to play “Super Scrabble.” When I heard that Super Scrabble existed, I hustled (okay, I asked my husband to hustle) to a toy store to buy the game. It has an oversized board and extra letters (2 “z’s” and “q’s”!). We play Singing Scrabble with it with six people. After you make a word, you have to sing a song related to it. (Yes, adult beverages help to “loosen” the vocal cords and singing inhibitions!) Scrabble lovers should really enjoy the version of the game. Banagrams, Bunco, there are lots of options.
Book group – One friend lives on a block with its own book group. Take a poll of your neighbors to see if there is interest and the types of books they prefer to read.
Happy Brewing or Happy Hour – We seem to have lots of home brewers in the neighborhood. They have created the “29th Street Brewers Guild” which gathers to help bottle (and taste) beer. Our neighbor, Jerrad, is especially generous with beer tastings. Another friend lives on a cul-de-sac where neighbors raise a flag to say happy hour has started. Consider the possibilities!
One of my heroes, the late Jane Jacobs (author of Death and Life of Great American Cities) wrote “In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn – if they learn it at all – the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”
We are so in this world together. It’s up to us to be the congenial neighbors we’ve been waiting for, and to pass on those neighboring skills to our children and grandchildren.
June 26, 2012 No Comments
One weekend in the 1990s, while wandering around scenic island community Langley, Washington, we stumbled upon an interesting little housing development. Eight charming bungalows with picket fences were clustered around a common courtyard. As we toured one home, we marveled at the creative use of space and light as well as the high quality construction. With front porches facing the courtyard and no street traffic, this was a little oasis designed for social interaction and neighborliness. We were impressed!
What we didn’t know was that this development, the Third Street Cottages, was a prototype project for contemporary “pocket neighborhoods” designed by Ross Chapin Architects. Whidbey Island’s Langley (population slightly more than 1,000) became the first community in the country to pass a new ordinance allowing the development of neighborhoods with smaller homes and yards that are more densely sited with a common central landscaped area. Bravo, Langley!
Designing a Pocket Neighborhood in Southwest Washington
Ross Chapin has since designed 40 pocket neighborhoods and published an excellent book, Pocket Neighborhoods – Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. His designs are in use in Southwest Washington in White Salmon. The Wyers End neighborhood is an example of these well-designed, smallish homes that are designed for neighboring and sustainability.
In 2008, Smart Development Corporation of Hood River worked with Ross Chapin to create the 18-home neighborhood with 12 different designs. The Energy Star homes range from 1700 sq foot, 3 bedroom bungalows to 500 sq foot, one bedroom cottages. Construction was by Skyward Construction of Ridgefield, WA.
Like the Langley development, Smart Development, which specializes “in the development of real estate projects in established neighborhoods where residents can enjoy the benefits of existing services while adding to the vitality of the community,” had to work through city code issues. “We had to hire a code consultant and have the zoning ordinance changed to allow for this development,” says Randy Orzeck of Smart Development. “Many aspects of the project did not meet current codes including road width, setbacks, storm water handling, parking, sidewalks, etc.” Creating a new code took more than one year.
Downsizing and Moving In
Foundation work had just started when Karen and Ulrich Goebel saw the neighborhood and decided to sell their home and move to Wyers End. They loved their 2700-2800 sq ft home, designed by their daughter architect Heidi Goebel of Austin, Texas, with high ceilings, expansive views of the Gorge and Mt. Hood and a ¾ acre lot. Heidi designed “ a beautiful, beautiful house, the most beautiful house in White Salmon!” proud father Ulrich extols. But the question arose, “Could one of us take care of what we have?” They were the first buyers.
Paul Pennington, a retired physician, and his wife, Sue, were the last buyers at Wyers End. “Sue fell in love with the house so that is part of it. And we liked the idea of a neighborhood that wasn’t gated and also wasn’t restricted by age. We are early in our retirement and we didn’t want to be in a place where everyone else was retired,” Paul remembers. “We thought that the gardening in the common areas was delightful and we appreciate that you have your own garden but you also steal views of really nice gardening all around.”
Both families had to face downsizing. Karen Goebel’s idea was “Anything that has a memory, we can’t get rid of it.” Then they realized that everything had a memory attached to it. “Every book is a friend of mine,” says Ulrich, who is a German medieval lexicography scholar. “I had lots of books.” They divested themselves of possessions with many books from Ulrich’s collection going to the University of Oregon.
Paul found that task equally challenging “but we really think that we are at the point in our lives that we have to do it.” His previous two homes were 3,000-3,200 sq ft with garages, sheds and, in one case, a barn. “It’s a big change but the effort is worth it.”
Designed for Neighboring
Karen liked the idea of the front porches facing one another. With meals served there six months of the year, their front porch “is like an extra room,” she says. Because porches are off-center without a path cutting through the middle to the front door, they provide a more livable space. Use of porches, in turn, provides more eyes on the street with safety and sociability the result.
Porches are just part of the public design. Chapin generally creates “layers” from public to private spaces including transitions created by “a border of perennial plantings, a low split-cedar fence with a swinging gate, the front yard, the frame of the porch with a porch railing and flower boxes, and the porch itself,” he reports in his Pocket Neighborhoods book. Although the homes are in close proximity, he creates privacy by creating open and closed sides of the house so that large windows do not face each other in adjacent houses.
The neighborhood is refreshingly NOT car-centric. Streets are narrower than typical city codes. Every home has a garage or a storage shed, most located away from the house. Neighbor interaction is encouraged because residents cannot duck straight into their homes from their cars and garages. In the cottages, storage is clustered in one building. A common building, a large garden structure with covered terrace overlooking the cottages, has been the site of annual community gatherings.
Neighboring is natural in Wyers End and other pocket neighborhoods with similar designs. “At our house where we lived we were on ¾ acre and another house (next door) on ¾ acre and if we ever even waved to our neighbors, that was a unique situation,” Ulrich remembers. “Here, the way they are facing one another and interacting the housing with the people, we know our neighbors.” He also knows his neighbors well as the current President of the Wyers End Homeowners Association.
“I think he (Ross Chapin) makes a real effort to encourage neighborliness so it’s really easy to walk over here (to the Goebels) and get coffee if we are out,” laughs Paul. “It makes a lot of sense to share.”
“We live next to banks, grocery stores, hardware stores – everything is within about three blocks,” says Ulrich. This helps families live with one car. “The walkability is a huge thing for us,” says Paul. “Everything is so close. It keeps you active and you meet people. There isn’t mail delivery in town so everyone goes to the post office sooner or later.”
The neighborhood scores a Walk Score® of 65 out of 100 which means, according to the Web site, it is “somewhat walkable” – some amenities within walking distance. Considering the close proximity of groceries, library, pharmacy and other shops and restaurants in downtown White Salmon, the neighborhood is much more walkable than the score suggests.
The next phase, which has an undetermined starting date, is located adjacent to the current neighborhood. Smart Development reports that it will include 10 live/work lofts as well as a commercial development along Jewett Blvd (Hwy. 141). Market demand will determine the construction date.
Like similar developments, this little neighborhood has been very stable with few homes going back on the market. One two-bedroom home at the end of SE Wyers is now on the market as of May 2012. Information is available at Copper West Properties.
For more information on this type of community design, visit this Web site on pocket neighborhoods.
May 10, 2012 No Comments
I have a confession. I HATE to make cookies. I have never enjoyed mixing dough. I’m impatient when the little darlings are in the oven. And we have a vintage Wedgewood stove from the 1950s which is strong on design and collectability, but has a runaway thermostat. Turn your back and your cookies are deflagrating at 500+ degrees.
So why did I, a total morning person, stay up until midnight last night, mixing batch after batch of high-cal morsels, starting over with brand new ingredients (thanks for going to the store, Gary) after discovering a weevil, artfully (sort of) twisting red and white dough into candy cane shapes, while totally trashing my kitchen with powdered sugar and wayward flour? Because I LOVE my neighbors and am willing to wrangle with my oven and stay up past my usual 9:15 bedtime to hang out with them at a cookie exchange. And, of course, it was worth it.
Our neighbors Caitlyn, Jerrad, and Ivy are incredibly creative. They set up a lovely gathering with boxes, ribbon and decorative stamps for packaging the cookies plus lots of appetizers and drinks. With each of us bringing six dozen cookies, the table was thoroughly bedecked with holiday treats.
Why do a cookie exchange? Our neighbors came up with lots of reasons. Here are 5.5 of our favorites:
1. You get to find out what is happening in the neighborhood. Who is performing in concert with her madrigal group? Who is having squirrel problems? Why was a neighbor taken to the hospital in an ambulance? You don’t learn these things in the newspaper or on Facebook.
2. You get to see how much the children have grown. Our little exchange had a 3.5-year-old, a toddler and two babies, including a month-old new neighbor who mostly slept through the evening. Our neighborhood is attracting young families. It’s fun to see how much their kids change over the years.
3. You get to welcome new neighbors. We were delighted that our newest neighbors joined us.
4. You see your neighbors’ latest remodeling projects, and get ideas for your own home. Most of our houses are 80 to 100-years-old. Believe me, we are all regularly updating and looking for cool ideas.
5. You can escape from reality tv to real life. Getting to know your neighbors is reality, not the latest television show.
5.5. In the words of the Cookie Monster, “Cookie!” Somebody said “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” We’ll be slowly savoring ours so we should have a balanced diet through Christmas. Thank you, Caitlyn, Jerrad, and Ivy!
December 20, 2009 6 Comments
When we grew up in (dare I say it) the 1950s and 1960s, everyone knew everyone else on the block. Parents, kids, dogs, cats, no creature was overlooked. Barbeques and block parties were the norm. Now we often hear people say that they want to meet their neighbors but don’t quite know how to do it. It seems like many neighborhoods are designed for the least human contact possible. Drive into the garage, enter the house and there is no opportunity to even casually neighbor.
We are lucky that many on our street like to get together. Each year, we have a Root Beer Float Social on the patio for our neighbors. Twenty-five of us gathered on a warm Sunday in July. This was a multi-generational affair with the ages ranging from 9 months to 90+.
We always ask the proverbial question: What comes first – the ice cream or the root beer? We never seem to reach consensus on this question. We just keep pouring and scooping, scooping and pouring.
June 20 marked the 90th anniversary of A&W Root Beer, which started in Lodi, California. How lucky that A&W was the chosen brand at our party this year!
In the true spirit of Martha Stewart, here is your supply list if you choose to gather your neighbors for root beer floats: invitations (personally delivered, please), regular and diet root beer, regular and light vanilla ice cream, ice, straws, long spoons, glasses or cups, napkins, a pitcher of water for those few who don’t drink root beer, lots of good cheer. Buy plenty. We always end up with unopened ice cream and soda. This year’s recipient was Share House men’s shelter in downtown Vancouver.
Happy Birthday, A&W! Thank you for all those great root beet floats! And thanks to our neighbors who really make our neighborhood a great place to live!
September 3, 2009 No Comments